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Thursday, 12 July 2012

I said the hippies don’t know nothing: Joan Didion’s bad trip

“Janis Joplin is singing with Big Brother in the Panhandle and almost everybody is high and it is a pretty nice Sunday afternoon between three and six o’clock, which the activists say are the three hours of the week when something is most likely to happen in the Haight-Asbury...

This is about as sunny as it gets in Joan Didion’s account of hippies in 1967 San Francisco. Most of her - very readable - essay Slouching towards Bethlehem is clouded by dark passages about deluded drug addicts or sinister hippy-activists who go about making public pronouncements like “How many times you been raped, you love freaks?” and “Who stole Chuck Berry’s music?” (There’s a particularly nasty bit where a bunch of “so-called Mime Troupers” in black-face surround a black man at a public gathering and start goading him with questions like “What did America ever do for you?”)

I’m no big fan of the late-60s “hippy” scene, music or anything else, and only picked up the Didion book today because it was raining and … er, I was waiting for it to stop (yeah, true enthusiasm for reading, I know). But, it kept me going well into the post-rain weather …

Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem

If you haven’t, I’d say check it out. Ignore the recent-years hype over Hunter S Thompson (bozo, not gonzo), and yes, dive into Didion’s little misery-fest. It’s worth reading for the authentic-sounding period language alone, eg: “She was living in this crazy house … There was this one kid, all he did was scream. His whole trip was to practise screams. It was too much … But then she offered me a tab …”. It’s packed with people rhapsodising about their “trip” or acid “flashes”, and characters (apparently real, possibly embroidered) say things like “I found love on acid. But I lost it. And now I’m finding it again. With nothing but grass.”

Forty-five years on, I don’t reckon Didion’s “new journalism” exposé of the summer of love’s dark side would surprise many people. What mass youth movement has ever been free of exploiters and egomaniacs? In the not-especially-beautific scene Didion describes, there are stories of the mafia muscling in on LSD supply, adulterating it with the amphetamine Methedrine (lower quality acid apparently). And meanwhile a superior and smug-sounding local police force have the “District” under tight surveillance and make remarks about how “The kids aren’t too bright”.

Slouching towards Bethlehem shows rather fucked-up teenagers running away from homes all over the USA to go and hang out in San Francisco. It’s the American Hippy Dream. They might seem clueless in Didion’s account, but I still quite like the sound of them. Since punk it’s been fashionable to mock hippies, but as Mark Perry once noted, naïveté and out and out stupidity have been common to hippies, punks, straights, and just about everybody else over the years …

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